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In the Age of the Creative Economy, Parks Boost Cities’ Competitiveness

Last month, Amazon.com spent more than $600 million to acquire three adjacent parcels in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for its new headquarters campus. The parcels are within brief walking distance of South Lake Union Park, a new destination park and the focal point of the burgeoning neighborhood.

Creative and technology firms respond to their employees’ preferences by locating in vibrant cities near destination public spaces. This trend can be observed across the country, from the growing tech cluster in Boulder, CO to Google’s recently-opened New York City offices, located one block from the High Line.

Parks have long been regarded as anchors of excellent city neighborhoods. Historic parks like Boston Common are cherished public gathering spaces in established communities, while brand new city parks, like Washington DC’s Yards Park, serve as the hubs around which fledgling communities can grow.

More recently, parks have been regarded as economic assets that create value for their communities, attracting tourism, sustaining real estate values, and increasing public health and enjoyment in ways that can be quantified (as the Center for City Park Excellence does in its Economic Value of a City Park System reports).

In addition to creating near-term economic benefits, parks can generate and sustain long-term economic growth. Over the past several decades, technological change has shifted the national and global economy toward the production of ideas over goods and services. In its Creative Economy Report 2010, the United Nations Council on Trade and Development (UNCTD) reports that growth in the creative economy, including arts, technology, and media has significantly outpaced global economic growth. It states:

In 2008, the eruption of the world financial and economic crisis provoked a drop in global demand and a contraction of 12 per cent in international trade. However, world exports of creative goods and services continued to grow, reaching $592 billion in 2008 — more than double their 2002 level…

In the U.S., the technology sector represent 29% of all growth in the office real estate market in 2011 (as reported by The Wall Street Journal).

In this new economy, a talented workforce – including scientists, programmers, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs – is the most valuable economic resource a city can procure. In a recent report that ranked cities around the world by their economic competitiveness, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that human capital is closely correlated with overall economic competitiveness.

The EIU then explains that urban amenities and quality of life are the defining factor in attracting a talented workforce. All other factors equal, talented employees prefer living in cities that are socially, culturally and intellectually vibrant, with diverse and high-quality public amenities that include excellent parks. The UNCTD report affirms these findings:

…comprehensive cultural asset management is a prerequisite for sustained growth in the creative-industries sector and, in a wider perspective, for sustainable economic development and vibrant community life. It is therefore necessary to maintain the principle that cultural assets are intergenerational capital and that their viability may legitimately be sustained by public investment.

The private sector has, as expected, responded swiftly to market forces by relocating to vibrant urban neighborhoods near public spaces. Now, there are promising signs that cities, too, are beginning to view parks as sound, long-term economic investments:

  • Synchronous public investments in creative industries and public space. For example, significant public investment in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which unites downtown Boston with its waterfront district, was coupled with investments in a new public transit line (the Silver Line) and incentive programs to help technology companies move to the newly branded waterfront “Innovation District.”
  • Major investments in new “signature” parks. A recent survey issued by the City Parks Alliance found that 55% of independently managed signature parks, those parks that define their cities, have been built in the past decade.
  • Partnership with the private sector. Cities are increasingly partnering with the private sector to access additional resources for parks, from the significant private fundraising that supported Millennium Park’s construction to the corporate sponsorship that provides public programming in Bryant Park.

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